Friday, 9 January 2015

Murderous certainty

I can’t claim that there is much of connection between this post and the themes of my book, with which this blog is supposed to be concerned, but at the moment I can’t think of much else except the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Like almost everyone else I am shocked and revolted by it. Above and beyond the shock and revulsion that would accompany any such event, what is particularly disgusting is that it was an attack on free expression, which is central to democracy and to a free society.
Over Christmas, I read Lamentation, the latest of C.J. Sansom’s excellent ‘Shardlake’ series, set in England under Henry VIII in a period of massive religious conflict. The book, which is soundly based in historical fact (Sansom started life as an historian), opens with a graphic account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew for heresy. Prior to this she had been grotesquely tortured. I mention this because the vicious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (and shades within these two camps) in Europe at this time seems to me to parallel those between Sunni and Shia Muslims and between radical Islamism and secular society at the present time. And it reminds us that the post-Enlightenment freedoms of which Charlie Hebdo can be seen to be an heir were won against a background every bit as bloody as today’s conflicts.
Those freedoms are, for sure, of a complex sort. We don’t allow untrammelled freedom of expression – for example in terms of hate speech or incitement to violence. Indeed, although I haven’t seen it remarked on in the media at all, Charlie Hebdo has an interesting history in this regard. It was re-named this way when it re-launched following its banning by the French State for satirising reactions to the death of former President Charles de Gaulle.
Inevitably, in the aftermath, there has been a mass of comment. Many have called for Muslims to condemn the attack, failing to recognize that just about every Muslim spokesperson has done so. Somehow, there is a sense that no matter how much the majority of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims may condemn, it is never enough to satisfy the demands.  In the context of Europe-wide anti-Muslim sentiment, such as the German Pinstripe movement, that is dangerous. It is also hypocritical.  When Anders Breivik massacred  77 people in Norway in 2011, calling himself a Christian and citing several mainstream journalists who had criticised ‘multi-culturalism’, there was no comparable call for every Christian or every opponent of multi-culturalism to make public statements of this sort. In fact much comment at the time was semi-apologist, saying that his actions, whilst reprehensible, showed the dangers of multi-culturalism.
The same voices are being heard now, suggesting that the Charlie Hebdo outrage is somehow linked to multi-culturalism. This rather neglects the fact that the killers and the radical Islamist ideology they represent is the most resolutely mono-culturalist that can be imagined. Like the dogmatists of Europe’s religious conflicts they insist that there is only one truth, one law, one way of behaving, one way of worshipping. To that end they have massacred not just cartoonists in Paris but schoolchildren in Pakistan, amongst many other abominations.
We need to see Breivik and his apologists and Islamist terrorists and their apologists as two sides of the same coin. Like those who burnt heretics they insist on one truth and one culture. They are filled with a murderous certainty. Now, more than ever, it is important to defend the virtues of plurality and tolerance; of relativism rather than absolutism. To counterpose certainty not with another certainty, but with doubt.  No one ever killed another person on the principle that ‘it depends how you look at things’ or 'there are two sides to every story'.
Whatever debates, comments and events follow the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it is important to remember its victims:

Stephane Charbonnier, 48

Jean Cabut, 68

Georges Wolinski, 80

Bernard Velhac, 58

Bernard Maris, 68

Phillipe Honore, 73

Mustapha Ourad

Elsa Cayat

Michel Renaud

Frederic Boisseau, 42

Ahmed Merabat

Franck Brinsolaro

Murdered in Paris, Wednesday January 7th 2015.


  1. Like you, Chris, I find it very hard to think of much else these days, except perhaps the near-2000 innocent people who were butchered in Nigeria by Boko Haram. The mind boggles.

    I agree with your analysis though parallels with Breivik's can be misleading. His abomination was not claimed by any political or social movement whereas sadly we read that in Afghanistan a rally has proclaimed the Paris murderers as heroes ( Another important difference is that Breivik's crime did spark revenge strikes as innocent Muslim people are liable to endure in the aftermath of the Paris events.

    I have two brief observations. I am sure that you hear the 'interview' with Cherif Kouachi ( prior to his death. Although this is a very short extract, I found it very interesting. He comes across as a fanatical but not as a deranged man. Describing him as 'evil' explains and serves nothing beyond a personal need to create meaning.

    Second, as a theorist of organizations, I wonder what you think about describing both Islamic extremist and Breivik as 'fascist', in the sense of Adorno et al - i.e. as authoritarian personalities. I am, of course, well aware of your long standing struggles against essentialism, psychological reductionism etc. but that at least offers an explanation beyond the banalities of evil. Just a thought.

  2. Thanks for these comments, Yiannis. I wouldn’t want to claim there are not all sorts of differences between Breivik and the Paris attacks. I’m not sure that the rally you mention (which I had not heard about) is such a difference though, in that there were undoubtedly far right groups who applauded Breivik’s actions – maybe not in rallies but I expect on various internet forums. But, that said, it is surely true the global scale, level of activity and organization of radical Islamism is far more extensive and dangerous than the far right that Breivik represented (thought that is not negligible). My main point in making the comparison was over this issue of condemnation.

    I agree Kouachi did not sound deranged – nor, for that matter, did Breivik – and I think you are quite right to say that we should understand these people as political and religious fanatics rather than as simply evil or for that matter ‘nutters’.

    I don’t have any problem with designating these people in terms of authoritarian personality (from my limited knowledge of them and of that concept) but I have never felt altogether happy about defining fascism in this way: they got so strongly conjoined in discussions of authoritarian personality perhaps because of the particular time of those discussions. What seems more to the point is that such personalities will find whatever culturally available ideology there may be around them in order to articulate those personalities and legitimate their actions (I think Adorno said something like this but I’m not sure it got picked up much). What matters, then, is what is available (and not just ideologically but in more material ways e.g. these Paris killers apparently received military training in Yemen) which is why it is always important to challenge their beliefs at every available opportunity. Fascism I think connotes a racialized, corporatist and nationalist state formation and doesn’t seem to me to be an obvious term to use here, despite the shared anti-semitism of fascism, radical Islamism and Breivik.

    I wouldn’t, at all event, use the term banalities of evil in this context. My understanding (which may be wrong) of that term is when evil actions become so routinized a part of everyday life as to cease to be seen in ethical terms at all. These murders – fortunately – are not routinized in that way at least in Europe.


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